Probiotics represent a multi-billion dollar industry and are one of the fastest-growing food and beverage categories on the market. It’s also a market that holds great potential for the dairy industry.

Consumer appeal is strong in that probiotics have been shown to have many health benefits, says Lori Hoolihan, nutrition research specialist with Dairy Council of California. Much of the research done so far has been with children and babies, but probiotic benefits also extend to adults.

Research shows that probiotics can be effective in helping premature infants grow. They can help with immune health as well. “Health benefits from improved immune function are hard to measure, but children taking probiotics have seen a reduced number of days sick and elderly people taking probiotics may also be sick for a shorter period of time,” notes Hoolihan.

Gut health is another attraction. Probiotics have best been known for their ability to support the body’s digestive system by helping to reduce symptoms of common digestive disorders, such as lactose intolerance, antibiotic-associated diarrhea, gas and bloating as well as clinical conditions such as irritable bowel syndrome and ulcerative colitis.

“The U.S. is finally coming around to be open to talk about gut health. Europe and Japan have been talking about gut health for years,” notes Hoolihan. The increase in openness of U.S. consumers to discuss gut health will help to drive the market.

Traditionally, yogurt has been the primary vehicle for delivering probiotics. However, new dairy products are being introduced into the market to meet increasing consumer interest. Probiotic-enhanced milk is just one of the new products to hit the market. Recently, Foster Farms Dairy introduced Dairy Balance, a new line of probiotic milk. In 2010, Guernsey Farms Dairy in Michigan also introduced a line of probiotic milk.

There is opportunity for more probiotic-enhanced dairy products to be introduced. “To date, milk and milk products have dominated the probiotic marketplace,” said Hoolihan, “but certainly the broader food industry has taken note and we’ll likely see a wide range of products outside the dairy case in the future.”

In 2010, Abunda Foods introduced a probiotic chocolate milk mix, called MojoMilk. MojoMilk comes via individualized stick packs, which can be poured into a 6-8 ounce glass of milk. Other products recently introduced include chocolate bars, yogurt covered raisins and bread.

Probiotic retail sales globally have grown from $100 million in 2002 to more than $7 billion in 2010. Retail sales of probiotic products are projected to top $11 billion in the next two years.